Teachers are leaving the profession – here's how to make them stay
Merryn McKinnon, Australian National University
Australia as a nation is failing to retain the best people in the teaching profession. Attrition rates are worryingly high with researchers estimating around 30% to 50% of teachers leaving in the first five years.
It is difficult to get a clear idea of the precise number of teachers leaving over this period in Australia because each state and territory collects its own statistics, and there is no established mechanism for tracking movements between educational systems.
The latest data collected from all states and territories suggests an average of 5.7% (21,404) of teachers left the profession in 2014. It shows attrition rates vary across the country, and are higher in the Northern Territory at 15.94%.
Although the attrition rates of early-career teachers aren’t necessarily higher than rates in other professions, the implications of these losses are far reaching.
As outlined in a report, nationally this means:
A loss of expertise. The Australian schools workforce is ageing, and research shows that the teachers who leave are likely to be replaced by even less experienced teachers. In South Australia for example, about half of the teachers working in government schools are older than 50.
Partially lost investment in initial teacher training. Research estimates that about 20% of education graduates do not register as teachers on graduating, meaning attrition starts even before they enter the education system properly. Nearly all of these graduates had other employment, either in non-teaching roles in the education sector or were still seeking employment. Some had no intention of seeking an education position in the near future. Given the Commonwealth contributes around A$40,000 to train one future teacher in a four year undergraduate degree, this is a large investment to then lose from schools.
The ratio of students to teachers will continue to fall. As the population of school students is set to increase by 26% by 2022 – a growth rate of 32% in primary schools and 18% in secondary schools – more teachers will be needed to teach these students, or class sizes will need to get much larger again.
There are already teacher shortages in remote and regional areas, as well as for specialist teachers.
In Western Australia in 2007 and 2008 for example, 80% of teacher vacancies were for public school secondary teachers in science, English, maths, and design and technology. This has led to teachers increasingly being called upon to teach subjects out of their field.
All of these have implications for students’ educational outcomes.
One of the main reasons why new teachers don’t stay is because they do not get the support and mentoring they need. This lack of support isn’t because other teachers are lazy and bad, or that school principals don’t care.
It’s an old argument but still a valid one – teachers simply do not have time to take on any additional work, which includes mentoring. On average, teachers spend more than 47.5 hours per week on school-related activities.
We’ve made progress on improving the quality of teaching graduates. The national accreditation standards launched last month hold providers accountable for the quality of their courses and the performance of trainee teachers. What’s missing is a strategy to retain these graduates once they’re in the system.
Who wants to be a teacher anyway?
That can be hard to do when many aspects of the job are unattractive. For decades researchers have cited heavy workloads, classroom management issues and a lack of collaboration and support as the main reasons for why teachers leave the profession.
We want to create a nation of critical thinking, creative, flexible and innovative people who understand the importance of collaboration. Yet teachers are not supported to be truly innovative and the system is far from flexible, creating barriers to desired practice and frustration.
Failing to recognise this will ensure we continue to lose the teachers we need most.
It can be done, with excellent outcomes. Take Finland for example.
Not only are their students performing near the top of international assessments like Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Finnish universities are turning away aspiring teachers.
In Helsinki alone, more than 1,400 applicants were turned down from enrolling in a masters of education.
In 2005 in Australia 111 people – nationally – applied to do a masters. This has grown significantly to 4,122 students in 2013. However over the same timeframe there has also been an increase in the number of applications from students with an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) in the lower bands.
Despite the intentions to recruit our teachers from the top 30% of school leavers, less than half of the offers to study education are given to students with an ATAR above 70.
Entry to teaching is not competitive – the government no longer controls the numbers of students enrolling in teacher education programs.
But even though it may be “easier” to get in here, it still doesn’t explain why so many leave.
So what is the main difference between the Finland and Australia? The education system.
In the Finnish system, early-career teachers are trained well and then, crucially, supported to try new things in the classroom.
In Australian classrooms, the high level of administrative demands, teaching loads, pastoral care and extra curricula activities leaves too little time for collaboration and innovation.
Instead we should be supporting teachers to allow them space and opportunity to innovate and do good things. This requires a cultural shift in the way schools operate at a systemic level.
One of the simplest ways is to support teachers in schools though mentoring and more flexible working conditions to allow time for innovation and reflective practice. The OECD acknowledges the provision of support to teachers as a policy direction for school systems internationally.
Standards are part of the solution, but unless we also address the context these standards operate within, little will change.
- This article was co-authored by Dr Lynn Walker. Walker has a PhD in plant physiology and has been teaching science for 15 years. She has been a curriculum leader in both middle school and senior school and is the lead mentor on an Australian Maths and Science Partnership Program project.
Merryn McKinnon and Lynn Walker receive funding from an Australian Science and Mathematics Partnership Project - National Mentoring for Science and Mathematics Teachers. Merryn is the evaluator and Lynn is the lead mentor.
Australian National University provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.